Language Acquisition

Whether it is the fluid sound of fluent French or the chaotic sound of Cantonese, the ability to learn a new language can be a daunting task. However, through thorough research into the complex process of language acquisition, new techniques have made the learning of a new language a bit easier to accomplish. The methods used in the past have included the vocabulary-based approach, double translation, the grammar-based approach, communicative approach, and the total immersion approach. Each of these methods has their strengths, as well as their weaknesses. When deciding which method to use when learning a new language, it is important to consider the personal learning style and preference, as people can vary as to their preference, which, in turn, would influence the motivation to learn.

Language Learning Styles

In order to assess which language learning style is best for your needs, it is important to look at the methods, positive aspects, as well as the challenges associated with the style used.

Vocabulary-Based

The vocabulary-based language learning approach utilizes associated a word with a picture, akin to how most children learn their first language, as it is a relatively easy method. The use of pictures assist those who are visual learners to memorize the vocabulary, and with the increase in the technological advances, computer-aided technology can replace traditional flashcards that have been used in the past (McGraw, Yoshimoto, & Seneff, 2009). However, the lack of grammar rules used in the vocabulary-based approach makes for a choppy and messy translation when communicating in the newly acquired language. This unnatural translation is partially due to the words chosen, as it would not be feasible to expect learners to memorize all of the words in a chosen language, since even native speakers may not even know all of the vocabulary of the language (Nation, 2001). However, it is suggested that in order to communicate effectively in English, learners would need to obtain a vocabulary ranging from 5000-9000 words (Schmitt, 2008), which may be daunting using the vocabulary-based language learning technique.

  1. Double Translation

Considered one of the oldest methods to learn a language, the double translation method can be traced back to the 1500s, utilized by the likes of Queen Elizabeth I. It was touted as “a true choice and placing of words, a right ordering of sentences, an easy understanding of the tongue, a readiness to speak, a faculty to write, a true judgement, both on his own and other men’s doings, what tongue so ever he does,” which is an amazing promise made by its creator, Roger Ascham (1570; 1909).
Double translation requires an adept teacher who is familiar with the meaning of the passage to be translated. By providing the background, purpose, and grammatical structure information to students, learning is conducted by the students translating the passage into the desired language into written form, and then making the needed corrections where errors were made. While the technique may be useful when learning languages which students will only read and never speak, such as Latin, it doesn’t teach listening or speaking skills, and can be time intensive.

Grammar Based

The grammar based language approach focuses on learning the different rules of grammar involved in the intended language. It is thought that once the grammar has been learned through rote memorization, the integration of vocabulary becomes easier. Such an approach allows learners to grasp the grammar rules of the language, which allows students to develop skills in both the reading and writing realms of a new language. However, it can take a while to learn enough grammar knowledge to use the language effectively and the memorization required can make the grammar-based language method frustrating at times.

Communicative Approach

Used primarily in a classroom setting, the communicative approach focuses on the different aspects of language including reading, listening, and writing, allowing for a holistic approach to language learning. Previous research into the communicative language approach among non-native English speakers have revealed that most of the students in such an environment preferred the method to improve their English proficiency (Wu, 2011). By enjoying a certain learning method, brain research suggests that not only will the approach be beneficial to learning, but may also help the recently obtained knowledge to be stored in the long-term memory (Brantmeier, 2005).

Total Immersion

The total immersion method can be one of the more frustrating, yet may allow learners to become familiar with the basic vocabulary skills needed to interact with native speakers. By going to a foreign country and communicating with the locals, learners don’t need to necessarily study and it strengthens listening skills, as well as increasing the likelihood of learning the different dialects and unique aspects of the language and culture. Additionally, the immersion method has been used in school settings in which all of the activities are conducted in the target foreign language, which has been shown to be effective if there is an interest to learn, a readiness to study a new language, and a desire to communicate in the new language (Kukk & Muldma, 2010). Studies have indicated that individuals using the total immersion method, spending 24-hours in the environment, learn, on average, 10 new words per day (Carey, 1978). However, while there is no formal studying involved in the total immersion, the stress and awkward situations that may arise due to not knowing the language can be overwhelming.

Language Delay

Delayed language development can scare parents, as their children are not keeping up with the milestones of normal speech progress. Between the ages of 6 and 11 months, children should be able to babble an imitation of real speech, with their first words occurring by 12 months of age, with a vocabulary of nearly 1500 words developing between the ages of 4 and 5 years of age (Coplan, 1995).

Language delays are the most frequent developmental delays, and can occur for a myriad of reasons. It is important to determine if the delay is due to being a “late bloomer,” or a more serious problem. Such delays can occur in conjunction with a lack of mirroring of facial responses, unresponsive or unaware of certain noises, a lack of interest in playing with other children or toys, or no pain response to stimuli (AAP, 2011).

Since communication is considered a two-stage process, involving both speech and hearing, language delay can be divided into two different categories: receptive and expressive. It is important to have each one of these categories evaluated by a medical professional in order to determine the underlying contributing factor to the delay in language development.

Receptive Language

Having a difficulty understanding and processing language can be frustrating, both for the individual experiencing it, as well as those around them. The understanding of language often occurs before the ability to express and speak, however, some children encounter troubles in the comprehension of language more than their peers. Research into language development has discovered that children who are late-bloomers in the age range of 18- to 30-months of age, are more likely to have continuing language problems (Bartak, Rutter, & Cox, 1975).

The inability to effectively comprehend information in children can include:

Repeating the last couple of words when asked a question, rather than answering it appropriately;

Following only single steps in a multi-step direction; and

Shaking head yes or no when asked a question, rather than answering it.

Expressive Language

The second aspect of language development which can be delayed, known as expressive language, affects up to 10% of school-age children. It is a condition where the child has a decreased vocabulary, difficulty in producing complex sentences, and remembering words (Simms, 2007). However, while the expressive aspect of language is delayed and below the appropriate developmental level, the comprehension skills are often within the normal limits (ICD-10, 2010), and most children who experience expressive language disorder or a delay, eventually catch up to their peers.

Pimsleur Method

When it comes to learning a new language, previous research into the development of language acquisition has shed light onto the complex aspects involved in mastering a new language. One of the methods that has shown to address a variety of key areas of language acquisition is known as the Pimsleur method, or the Pimsleur Language Learning System. The developer, Paul Pimsleur, created the program based on four principles that have been associated with effective memory and language recall skills.

Through Pimsleur’s thorough research into how the brain processes language, he developed a method that takes into account the most important factors in learning a new language, which were identified by Pimsleur, Stockwell, and Comrey (1962) as:

Verbal IQ
Interest or Motivation
Reasoning
Word Fluency
Pitch Discrimination

Taking the above key areas into consideration, Pimsleur developed a language learning system that incorporates them into four principles which serve as a foundation for forming memory associations and language recall. They consist of:

Anticipation
Graduated-interval recall
Core vocabulary
Organic learning

Anticipation

The “challenge and response” technique allows the learning session to be a more active way of learning, and has been thought to be more closely related to real-life conversations.

Graduated-interval recall

Learned vocabulary is recalled at an increasing longer interval, which is a version of retention through varied repetition. According to Pimsleur’s 1967 memory schedule, the intervals range from 5 seconds to 2 years.

Core vocabulary

A core vocabulary is built of commonly-used words which form the majority of words spoken in the target language. While the Pimsleur method does not focus directly on grammar, through repetition the patterns and phrases, language skills are acquired similarly to the way native speakers learn grammar as children.

Organic learning

Organic learning consists of the studying of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, which is conducted through auditory skills, which according to Pimsleur, is different from reading and writing skills. Additionally, through auditory learning, students are able to learn not only the words, but also the accent of the target language.

By combining the above categories into an easy to follow program, new language acquisition can be easier when compared to other methods that rely on rote memorization. The Pimsleur method is a self-study method which incorporates an audio-based format, which does not focus too much time on the rules and explanations of the target language. Instead, it allows learners to build their language vocabulary from the translation of contextual sentences (Rappoport & Sheinman, 2005). The unique mixture of approaches involved in the Pimsleur method suggests that it is highly effective, according to research and learner comments (Rappoport & Sheinman, 2005).

The Pimsleur method focuses on proficiency in speaking, as well as proficiency in reading. These two aspects are honed through thirty-minute lessons, which are repeated until a score of at least 80% comprehension is achieved before proceeding to the next lesson. During the lessons, students listen to native speakers of the target language as they speak phrases in both the foreign language, as well as the student’s main language. At graduated-intervals, learners are prompted to repeat a phrase after listening to the speaker. As the student progresses through the program, the interval increases, as does the size of the vocabulary.

Using the approach utilized in the Pimsleur method allows students to build a large (and useful) vocabulary while assisting the information to cross over into the long term memory, with the association growing stronger as the recall intervals are increased. Such a method has been shown to be more effective than the other methods which involve memorizing words and a vocabulary list, along with grammar rules. Such rote memorization may actually hinder the learning of a new language, as it does not allow for an interaction and participation with native speakers of the target language.

References

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Ascham, R. (1909). The schoolmaster (1570). Ithaca, N.Y: Published for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Cornell University Press.

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Rappoport, A., & Sheinman, V. (2005). A second language acquisition model using example generalization and concept categories: Proceedings of the second workshop on psychocomputational models of human language acquisition. Association for Computational Linguistics.

Schmitt, N. (2008). Review article: Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329-363. doi:10.1177/1362168808089921

Simms, M. D. (2007). Language disorders in children: Classification and clinical syndromes.Pediatric Clinics of North America, 54(3), 437-467. doi:10.1016/j.pcl.2007.02.014

Talts, L., Kukk, A., & Muldma, M. (2010). Obtained general competence of students in language immersion classes. Journal of Teacher Education for Sustainability, 12(2), 89-96. doi:10.2478/v10099-009-0056-8

World Health Organization (2010). F80.1 Expressive language disorder. In The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders: Diagnostic criteria for research. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Wu, K. (2011). Teaching and learning English at tertiary level: Revisiting communicative approach. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 1(11), 1459-1470. doi:10.4304/tpls.1.11.1459-1470